Recent airspace changes at Salem, Oregon, to improve safety for instrument operations at McNary Field will not stunt the state’s vibrant Christmas tree farming activities when the airfield is under instrument conditions.
The FAA and the Salem air traffic control tower have made a letter of agreement available for agricultural operators working within the newly expanded Class D airspace that will allow pilots to conduct Christmas tree cutting when the airfield experiences ceilings and visibility below VFR minimums.
The agreement is significant because Oregon State University’s extension service estimated in 2007 that the region led the nation in Christmas tree production with 6.9 million Noble Fir trees. The popular holiday trees thrive in the Willamette Valley’s wet soil near Salem and accounted for $109 million in economic benefits to the state, according to the report.
Noble Firs and their Douglas Fir cousins make up 90 percent of all Christmas tree varieties sold during the holiday season, so stifling their harvest because of the Class D expansion at the airfield would have had a negative economic and social impact.
AOPA, the Oregon Pilots Association, the Oregon Farmers Bureau, and affected farmers and aviation business owners have been actively engaged in discussing options to safely integrate aerial farming into the newly expanded airspace plan.
Rune Duke, AOPA director of government affairs, airspace and air traffic, said a Sept. 24 teleconference that brought all parties to the table was extremely beneficial.
“We provided examples of Letters of Agreements (LOA) created at other airports to enable a discussion of mechanisms that will resolve the issue of one-in, one-out during instrument conditions at the airfield,” Duke said. “AOPA met with the Oregon Farmers Bureau on Oct. 8 to ensure the maximum number of farmers and operators were made aware of the availability of the LOA. Eight tree farmers and aviation operators are included in the initial agreement. However, additional farmers and aerial operators will have the opportunity to be part of future LOAs.”
Under the agreement, aircraft operating in VFR and special VFR conditions must stay below 400 feet agl and communicate with the tower while they are engaged in tree harvesting duties within McNary Field's Class D airspace. Pilots also must maintain visual separation from themselves, other aircraft, and terrain. The harvesting areas are also close to nearby Independence State airport, which has its own notch cut out of the larger Class D airspace.
Duke recommended that farmers and agricultural pilots not included on the initial LOA contact the Salem tower with a request to be included in future agreements.